Football

Gianluigi Buffon: From Darkness into Light

Gianluigi Buffon is among the greatest goalkeepers of all time. He is also one of the few top footballers to discuss his own experiences of depression.

by Jim Weeks
05 June 2015, 12:10pm

Photo by PA Images

Gianluigi Buffon has never won the Ballon d'Or. The Italian was runner-up in 2006 — when international team-mate Fabio Cannavaro took home the award — but the Juve 'keeper has not made the final three since. At 37, his chances are running out.

He is also yet to win the Champions League. But some feel that if he does — if the Juventus captain lifts the trophy on Saturday night in Berlin — he will also have earned an honour recently dominated by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo; that individual glory should follow collective triumph.

"If Juve win, then perhaps Gigi could be a serious candidate for the Ballon d'Or," said evergreen striker Luca Toni, who played alongside Buffon during Italy's World Cup triumph in 2006. His current Juve manager Max Allegri has made similar comments.

It remains unlikely, unless Buffon single-handlely wins his side the match by keeping out the Barca attacking triumvirate of Messi, Neymar and Suarez. And even then, Messi's form has been so dazzling in 2015 that it's hard to look past the little Argentine to reclaim the honour later this year. Unless he pops up in the Barça box for a 90th minute headed winner, Buffon will probably never hold the Ballon d'Or.

In the grand scheme of things that doesn't matter at all (although it would be great to see Gigi clutch the award to his chest like he has so many crosses into his box). Buffon has won pretty much everything else that a footballer could hope for, with a medal haul led by that World Cup triumph – which, fans of omens would point out, also came at Berlin's Olympiastadion and alongside current Juve team-mate Andrea Pirlo. Buffon was vital to the Azzurri throughout the tournament, not least during the final. He has been his country's captain since 2010 and has played more games for Italy — 147 and counting — than any other. He'll probably still be in goal at next summer's European Championships; he could even make it to a sixth World Cup in 2018, when he will be 40 years of age.

At club level he's only missing the Champions League. He'd already won the UEFA Cup and Coppa Italia at 21 with Parma. Since moving to Juve he has collected six Serie A titles, plus two more that the club were stripped of by the Calciopoli scandal. He's also won Serie B (having stuck with the Bianconeri following their demotion) and another Coppa Italia. Who outside Barça's Spanish contingent can claim such a collection?

Yet Buffon is far more interesting than your common-or-garden world-class goalkeeper. He is one of the very few top-line footballers to discuss mental health issues while still playing the game; Buffon battled depression in his mid-twenties, and opened up about it a few years later.

Photo by PA Images

His troubles began around 2003, the same year he played in his only other Champions League final, a penalty shootout defeat to Italian rivals AC Milan.

"From December 2003 until June 2004 I was suffering from depression, I was seeing a psychologist," he told the FIFA website in 2008. "I never understood why, not then, not before and not after.

"I wasn't satisfied with my life and football. My legs would start shaking all of a sudden," he continued. "It was a dark period because I am a sunny and optimistic person. I was thinking, 'how can rich and normal people suffer from depression?'

"They are terrible moments. You completely lose your sense of self, and nothing is rational. The fact is that when you suffer from depression, you don't have to be afraid to ask for help and to speak with those who are close to you. I did it with those who cared a great deal for me, and I tried to be with people during this time and went out."

Buffon added that he recovered without warning, though the fact he had spoken with a psychiatrist and those close to him was no doubt a significant help.

"It happened all of a sudden," he explained. "I used to be scared of going to [the pitch]. At the European Championships in Portugal during the match between Italy and Denmark, a horrendous match, I was the only one smiling."

In a later interview with the Guardian, Buffon acknowledged the difficulties facing a high-profile footballer who wishes to speak openly about depression.

"The problem was if I had said: 'I am going away for two months to get better' I would have been finished. Because every time after that, if I had failed with a save or whatever, I would have been reminded of that period. I just couldn't allow myself to go away for two or three months to get better."

He also had negative preconceptions about speaking with a mental health professional.

"I thought psychologists were people who rob, figuratively of course, money from the insecure. But they are not. They are people who are there to help you and if you find a good psychologist, they will allow you to talk about everything and open up, without the slightest of fears, and that is no easy thing."

Buffon's first public discussion about his depression came in November 2008. A year later, the German national team goalkeeper Robert Enke took his own life after battling depression. Enke had also spoken to a psychiatrist, but his case ended in tragedy.

Other footballers have discussed similar issues – and that they continue to do so is important. Statistically, football supporters are predominantly men aged between 25 and 34. Statistics also tell us that men aged 30-44 suffer the highest suicide rate in the UK; global figures are consistent with this. In other words, football's largest demographic is at high risk of mental health issues and potential suicide. When the most respected names in the game speak about it – and even discuss their own battles, as Buffon did – it normalises the issue; it is not an exaggeration to suggest that it can lead people to open up about their own problems, and perhaps even save lives.

Buffon is by no means perfect. As a 21-year-old at Parma he wore a t-shirt emblazoned with a neo-fascist logo, and chose to wear 88 on his shirt — a number that has neo-Nazi connotations. He explained both as naivety and ignorance; he has not made a similar gesture since, with both of these events now 15 years past. Maybe he was simply unaware of the meaning.

It takes some of the shine off, perhaps, but what Buffon has done on and off the pitch still deserves great credit. His goalkeeping needs no further discussion — he has been among the best in the world for 15 years and will go down as one of the greatest of all time.

Away from his goalline, Buffon went some way to normalising the discussion of mental health problems among the illness' most vulnerable group. He is undoubtedly not the only top-line footballer to suffer from depression — yet he is among the very few who have spoken of it publicly. What's more, he did so in a culture that is not comfortable discussing such topics.

It doesn't really matter if he wins the Ballon d'Or. It's not even that important for him to win the Champions League on Saturday night. What counts is that Buffon's openness might have helped someone else suffering from depression to seek help. And, in the grand scheme of things, that does matter.